A Great Man?
Until this moment everything had been perfectly choreographed. The Rosary on Wednesday evening, followed by the wake, then last night the removal from the front parlour above the bar to the church, and this morning the funeral mass followed by the burial.
All the incense had been burnt, the holy water splashed, every prayer and incantation uttered now all that was left was the work of the gravediggers. The two men in coveralls lounging against a headstone four graves down from his Da`s plot, which was temporarily covered with timber, each dragging on cigarettes, shovels resting in the crook of their shoulders, waiting for the mourners to depart so they could get on with their work.
No matter how many funerals he`d been to in his fifty eight years this had always been the most awkward point in proceedings, people milling around, desperate to be anywhere but in a graveyard, particularly on a beautiful May morning like this one; but no-one wanting to be the first to make a move towards the gate.
“Sorry for your loss!”
Frank took the outstretched hand, “Thanks Miss Dillon.”
His old primary school teacher looked solemnly up at him, her back still ramrod straight despite celebrating her ninetieth birthday less than a month ago. “He was a decent man, and charitable to a fault, even to those undeserving of it,” her eyes flicked past him to his right as she spoke, a trace of annoyance clouding them as she did.
Frank resisted the urge to look around, to see what had caught her attention. Her words had been solicitous enough, but her tone had been snippy, as if she didn’t mean them.
He thanked her for her kind words, thinking, old bat never lost it, as he did. Miss Dillon had taken an instant dislike to him from the first moment they`d met, though he`d never understood why, making his first four years of primary school a living hell, taking any and every opportunity to punish him.
He waited until her back was turned before looking over his right shoulder to see what had caught her attention.
Forty feet away a clutch of elderly women stood huddled together, their body language broadcasting their anxiety. He wondered who they were, not locals that`s for sure, he thought, as the owner of one of the only two pubs in the village he knew everyone within a ten mile radius. And yet.. and yet there was something oddly familiar about them, he`d have sworn he`d seen them somewhere before, probably some of me Da`s cousins, he decided, yeah that must be it. But he wasn’t convinced; would cousins be too nervous to join the family?
“Honey,” a hand touched his arm.
“Huh? Oh Maura, sorry I was away with the fairies,” he smiled at his wife, feeling oddly guilty for no reason he could think of.
“Are you alright?” she looked genuinely concerned.
“What? Oh yeah just a little, you know….” He waved a hand in the general direction of the grave, noticing that people were starting to edge towards the exit.
“We should be going,” Maura said, her voice full of understanding sympathy, “people will be expecting…”
“Right, right,” they`d invited anyone who`d cared back to the pub for drinks and sandwiches, it wouldn’t do to be the last to arrive.
He pulled the car keys from his pocket, “Will you go on ahead, get Padraig to open up, I`ve… I just want to….” He looked around distractedly.
She touched his arm again, “You sure?”
“Yeah, yeah, you guys go on ahead, it`s only half a mile, the air will do me good,” he smiled to show she needn’t worry.
“Okay, if you`re sure,” she hesitated a moment as if uncertain whether she should say anything, then went to join their grown up children, and their children, to explain the change in plans.
When he was certain they were all on their way out, he turned back to the small cluster of women, and began wending his way around the plots between them, a need to find out who they were gnawing at the back of his mind.
As he approached they huddled together, whispering amongst themselves in obvious disagreement, that is to say the tallest of them was disagreeing with the other four, and by the time he was within a few feet of them, they were prodding their unwillingly nominated spokesperson towards him.
Awkwardly she thrust out a hand, “Sorry for your loss," she said with real feeling, "your father was a good man.”
Her Brummie accent was unmistakable and triggered a memory, suddenly he knew where he`d seen these women before, at Harry`s funeral in Birmingham ten years previously; although “met” would be stretching the meaning of the word to near breaking point, “seen” would be more accurate.
He`d been with his mam, Maura wasn’t able to make the trip, a bad case of the flu, and it was a moment not unlike this one. They were in the graveyard and six women had almost mobbed his Da, crowding around him, smiling and jabbering at him. Frank had made to go over and see what the commotion was about when his mam had grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and simply said, “No, leave it,” he was about to protest when he noticed she had, (and when he recounted what had happened to Maura when he got home, it was the only time in his life he ever used the word) “She had the most beatific smile on her face as she said it,” he`d told her.
That was to be the second most astonishing thing he`d seen that day, the first was watching his Da, a bear of a man, wrap his arms around Harry`s sobbing live in “Friend” David Blevin, as if he were a long lost relative, hugging him tightly for a full five minutes, murmuring, “There, there, I know, we all miss him,” tears spilling down his own cheeks as he did.
“You were friends of Harry`s,” he said, “I saw you at his funeral.”
The tall woman smiled, “Your uncle was more than a friend to us, he and your father did more for us than we can ever repay…”
“Your Father saved our lives.” One of the women blurted, her small round face looking shocked as she said it, as if she`d meant to say something else entirely, but the words had escaped her.
“Now Ethel,” the tall woman cautioned.
“Don’t, now Ethel me, Rose O`Leary, Pat Hegarty saved my life, all our lives, including yours, and you know it.”
The woman named Rose smiled at Frank, “You`ll have to forgive Ethel, she`s being a little melodramatic. Your father.... and his brother saved us alright; from the laundries.”
Frank felt a chill sweep across his skin, “The Laundries” an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Young girls who found themselves in the family way shoved by their families into the laundries which were run by the nuns, a form of slave labour dressed up as Christian charity, and for many it was to become a life sentence. Their children sold off to rich Americans, or worse, used as guinea pigs, the latest vaccines tested on them with no-one to care if they survived or not.
A fresh memory surfaced, his Da, face purple with rage snapping the T.V. off as they were watching a documentary on the Magdalene laundries, "Stop watching that shite," he`d thundered, Frank misinterpreting this at the time as a defense of mother church, only now fully understanding what had enraged is father so.
“How….?” He couldn’t think how to articulate the question.
“He gave us money, organised transport to England, had his own little underground railroad as it were. Your uncle would be waiting for us in Fishguard, he`d put us up as long as we needed, helped us get jobs, some of us even got to keep our babies..” she trailed off realising she`d said too much. “Oh Ethel I`m sorry….”
There were tears running down the fat woman`s cheeks, her shoulders heaving though she wasn’t making a sound, the other women patting her shoulders sympathetically, one was rubbing her back; it became too much for her and she turned away from him, burying her face in her hands.
Frank thought of what it must have cost his Da, not in monetary terms, but to his reputation, for a publican in a rural village to get between the church and a lucrative source of income, my God, he thought, with absolutely no sense of irony. And he finally understood all the snide comments he`d endured, the jagged edges of his life slipping together until, for the first time he was able to see the complete picture, his own childhood finally making sense.
Then a horrible thought struck him, and it must`ve shown on his face because Rose smiled, patted the back of his hand and said, “Don`t worry there`s none of them anything to you, your father was a complete gentleman, never laid a finger on a one of us.”
“I wasn’t, I, I….” he blushed.
Recovering he said, “We`re having food and drinks back at the pub, nothing fancy, just sandwiches and cake, I`d be honoured if you`d join us, I`m sure Da would want you to…”
Rose shook her head, “No; thank you, but we couldn’t,” the other women shook their heads in agreement.
“Please, I want my children to know who their Grandda really was, the kind of man he was, you` d be doing us, me, an honour.”
Rose shook her head again, “We`d love to but… well you see, there`s some in this village have memories that`d shame an elephant, it`d be…. Difficult.”
“I`m prepared to beg,” Frank said, “on bended knee if I have to. It seems to me you knew me Da better than I did, and I`d like you to introduce me to him,” and to prove he meant it he actually dropped to one knee, “I won’t take no for an answer,” he declared.
And though he`d never raised his hand to a woman in his life, he thought, and if that old witch says one word out of place I`ll slap her into the middle of next week, middle of next year if need be.
Rose was giggling, an oddly girlish sound coming from a woman who couldn’t be a day under seventy; even Ethel was smiling. “Alright,” Rose said, “You win. You really are your father`s son, that man could charm the paint off the walls when he put his mind to it. Now get up before you ruin your suit pants”
my shroud of a father,
my poor pinched giver
of skewed advice, of a knowing
that was off-scale, out of its time.
Once you were enormous,
towered over us as tots,
had visions that lit the future,
you were a colossus, a beacon
for our moth-like love.
Trapped by your parents
in an emotional iron lung
not allowed to breathe unaided
even when released you limped,
slipped knitting, not quite sound.
All my days you’ve been
shrinking, or I have loomed
up from nothing to overshadow
your self-image, leader, great man
whose followers lost their faith.
Silence. Rows of teenagers stare at me blankly. Well, some of them stare. Others are texting under the desk. Nico is gawking openly and unashamedly at Aaliyah’s chest, which is graphically outlined through the cheap cotton of her too-tight school blouse.
His eyes snap to the front. “Miss?”
“Any ideas? Henry has been speaking to his soldiers in disguise, they think he’s one of them. And then they exit and he’s on his own. What’s interesting about that?”
“Um. He’s, like, talking to himself?”
“Well, arguably he’s talking to the audience. But, what’s interesting about what he’s actually saying? Come on, you’ve only just heard Keisha read it so beautifully, you can’t have forgotten already?”
“Um, I think I have forgotten actually.”
An “outstanding” school. Apparently.
“Well, remind yourself.”
Great exam results. Great pastoral. Great facilities.
“You don’t even need to read it, Nico, just look at how it’s set out on the page. What do you notice?”
A hand shoots in the air and I hear an “ooh, ooh!” of realisation. I guess Nico’s off the hook.
“He’s talking in verse now!”
“Good. And why do we think he’s changed from prose to verse?”
Mikayla fiddles with her pen. “Um, because he, like, he’s not pretending to be common anymore? So he’s kinda gone back to posh?”
I’ll take it.
“Good. Now he’s alone he can be himself. But is he happy about that? Or does he wish he could be ordinary. Lee?”
“Can you give me an example from the text to explain that?”
“Someone other than Mikayla? No? Alright, Mikayla.”
“When he’s like, 'not all these, laid in bed majestical can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave'…”
“Good. He doesn’t want to be a hero in this moment. He feels it’s too much responsibility.”
“Miss?” says Ashdon (he didn’t put his hand up, but I’ll let it slide if he’s making an actual point) “why is Henry V a hero anyway if all he did was, like, kill a load of French guys. Like, my Dad is French, would he of killed my Dad?”
“Well, I suppose you have to see it in the context of the time. People at the time thought of him as a hero. He was a great leader, in the play at least, he’s charismatic, he speaks well, he’s good at firing people up.”
“Like Hitler,” says Madison, who has managed to mention Hitler at some point during every lesson this term.
“Or Donald Trump,” says Mikayla.
The bell goes.
Alisha approaches my desk. She waits till everyone else has gone.
“Ben was, like, sitting next to me and I didn’t even want to sit next to him but he sat down and I didn’t have time to move and, like the whole lesson he just kept touching my leg. The whole time. And I told him not to.”
“Oh.” I put down my pen. I try to look like I know what I’m doing. “Has this happened before?”
She shakes her head.
“Well, I think,” I said, my mind racing as I try to recall if I’ve been given any guidelines as to the protocol in this situation, “the best thing would be if I spoke to your head of year about it. Mrs Norton?”
She nods and twists the end of her hair around her finger.
“Was there any thing else you want to talk about?”
“No, Miss. Only, can you not let Ben know that I said anything?”
The first time I met Mrs Norton was when she was giving me the tour in September of this year, the day before term began.
She was saying, “he’s completely turned this school around. In just two years. You wouldn’t believe the difference. I mean he’s a born leader, you just have to hear him speak in assembly. I mean, the kids actually sit still and listen to him, miraculously. But, of course, you’ll have met him at your interview.”
I said, “yes.”
“What was your impression?”
When I’d first entered the room he’d looked me up and down. All the way up and all the way down. On purpose.
“… like someone in control.”
“Oh, for certain. This is the gym. We’ve just had the floor redone over the summer.”
“The English classrooms are just upstairs, where you’ll be spending most of your time, of course. This way. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I know Jack was very impressed with your interview, he told me afterwards, he said you were by far the best.”
“I’m awful in interviews. Fortunately I’ve been here for thirty years, so it’s been a long time since I’ve had to do one. But you’ll have to tell me your secret.”
“Yes, the secret of how you’re so good in interviews.”
“Oh. I don’t think I am, really. I don’t think I have a secret. It’s just…”
At the end he stood up to shake my hand. Then he didn’t let go. He stepped closer to me still holding my hand, his eyes locked on mine.
“… I think, you just have to be yourself.”
And then with his free hand he tucked my hair behind my ear, his fingers brushing my cheek.
“Well, we’re glad to have you here anyway. Honestly, this is a fantastic school since Jack’s been here. Unrecognisable from how it was before.”
That was it. That was all that happened. And if you want to know why I didn’t tell anyone, it’s because there was nothing to tell. And I wanted this job.
And after all, he was a great head. He had turned the school around. He had given opportunities to kids who might otherwise have slid through the cracks. Who was I to mess that up for all those kids who were being given a better chance in life because of him?
Mrs Norton was in her office.
I said, “it’s Ben Warren.”
She said, “Oh, yes?” in the tone of someone who has heard the name Ben Warren all too often.
“Alisha told me he kept touching her leg during class.”
“Oh. Well, I’ll have a word with him.”
“OK. It’s just, she doesn’t want him to know she said anything.”
There’s a knock and the door opens at the same time.
He strides into the room, brushing his floppy hair off his forehead. His shirt is gaping at the neck. He doesn’t wear a tie – it’s his thing.
“You’ve arrived at the opportune moment, as usual,” says Mrs Norton. “We were just discussing Ben Warren.”
“Oh, Ben Warren. What’s he done now? He’s on his final warning already so we can probably exclude him.”
“Catherine was just telling me, he kept touching Alisha’s leg during the lesson.”
Jack nods briskly. “With his record I reckon we’ve got grounds for exclusion. I’ll deal with it. I wanted to talk to you, Sue, about this fundraiser.”
That’s my cue to leave, I know. So I do.